There are few exercises that offer more bang for your buck and real-world application than the deadlift. The ability to bend down and pick objects off the ground is a very natural and essential capacity. My best deadlift is 675 pounds at a weight of 220. When I was a little kid, at 8 years old, I used to pick manhole covers up at recess to impress my classmates. Deadlifting was very innate to me. But whether you’re trying to pick your children up off the floor or go for a PR deadlift, this is a movement everyone will want to do and do well their entire lives.
Deadlifting also has a tremendous physiological effect on the body. It encompasses a lot of upper- and lower-body strength, as well a ton of control and recruitment of the lower-back muscles. Due to the large amount of musculature recruited, there is a large systematic hormonal response in the body from deadlifting with any significant level of intensity. This movement is very anabolic (good for muscle building) and beneficial to the development of general overall strength in the body. For this reason the deadlift is also a great exercise for improving body composition in novice athletes as well.
Like any effective potent drug, exercises can be abused and cause damage as well. I have never heard of as many back injuries associated with another movement as with the deadlift. Almost every instance of injury is associated with user error or poor coaching — prescribing too much intensity or not fixing mechanical faults. Here are the top mechanical errors in the deadlift and how to fix them:
Error #1: Loss of Lumbar Curve
Athletes should try to engage and maintain a strong position of the back, keeping the lower back arched, shoulders pulled back and abdominals braced. Loss of this position results in a loss of power and generally less safe position as there are more shearing forces on the spine.
Fix: Cue the athlete to arch the back and pull the shoulders back. You can use a tactile cue by anchoring the hip and lifting the athlete’s chest to get the spine into extension.
Error #2: Loss of Hamstring Recruitment
It is important to keep the weight in the heels and to have the hamstrings stretched and loaded in this movement. We want to access the big powerful musculature on the back side of the body to pull the weight up. Letting the bar pull you onto your toes releases that tension. Also a squatty set-up position with the hips too low creates slack on the backside.
Fix: Cue the athlete to shift their weight to their heels. Place a hand on their lower back and have them drive back into you. Raise the hips up to create tension in the hamstring in the bottom of setup position.
Error #3: Not Keeping the Shoulders Rising
As athletes pull weight off the ground, it is not ideal to allow the hips to rise without the shoulders. Doing so places greater forces on the extensor of the lower back.
Fix: Cue the athlete to keep their shoulder rising. Tell them to visualize pushing the floor away. Tap them under the shoulders to keep the chest moving up.
The deadlift can be the most powerful tool in your exercise arsenal. Once you have mastered and developed capacity in this movement, you have laid a strong foundation for more advanced movements like the snatch and the clean and jerk. Avoiding this movement will result in a huge gap in your fitness. Remember, this is something that all of us will need to do well for a long time to maintain a high quality of life and functionality. Follow this progression for success:
- Establish good sound mechanics.
- Demonstrate that you can repeat those mechanics with consistency.
- Then, and only then apply intensity to this movement.
You only have so many shitty deadlifts in your system before something goes wrong and injury occurs. Give yourself a long and fruitful life in fitness by dialing it back and staying within these parameters.